How the Commission ‘blocked’ key environmental plans

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EXCLUSIVE / Plans to crack down on endocrine disruptors and illegal timber being imported into the EU, were buried by the outgoing President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, and his secretary-general Catherine Day, according to a senior EU source.

With only weeks remaining before the Commission President steps down, tongues are beginning to loosen at the EU executive.

Barroso and Day have often been singled out by environmentalists for a perceived tilt to business interests when it comes to green legislation, a charge their spokespeople strongly deny.

But it now appears that key legislative proposals put forward by the Commission’s own environment directorate were quashed by Barroso and his secretary-general after being deemed unimportant.

“If you look at the Commission’s work programme for 2013-14 you will find a lot of environment proposals that didn’t happen,” one senior EU source told EURACTIV.

“They didn’t happen because we were told that they couldn’t happen,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Endocrine disruptors

The Commission’s 2013 work programme included plans to revise the strategy on ‘gender-bending’ endocrine disruptor chemicals (EDCs) to better protect public health and the environment. While a roadmap document was published in June and a public consultation document is expected soon, no legislative proposals have yet been forthcoming. 

Officially, Commission spokespeople say that delays to establishing criteria for identifying EDCs, which could be incorporated into the bloc’s pesticide and biocide laws, are “justified because of the complexity of the issue, evolving science and diverging views among scientists and stakeholders.”

But speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior EU official had a different interpretation. “The endocrine strategy was blocked because of lobbying by the cosmetics industry,” the source said. A public consultaion

The Commission work programme also contained a pledge to report on sustainability requirements for biomass, as a way to minimise problems such as deforestation, and increased greenhouse gas emissions.

Although biomass makes up 50% of Europe’s renewable energy, a lack of carbon accounting rules means that it can be imported from non-Kyoto Protocol signatory countries such as the US – whose exports to Europe doubled last year – with no guarantees that forests have not been felled to produce it.

Bioenergy criteria

But in April, Commission officials announced that the publication of draft criteria for bioenergy had been postponed until after 2020. Catherine Day is widely believed to have been one of the blockers.

The science behind the draft proposal was also criticised by environmentalists, EURACTIV understands. But all that now remains of an EU commitment to publish guidelines to ensure binding sustainability criteria for biomass by 2014, is a staff working group document which considers a variety of non-binding options.

An official Commission statement received by EURACTIV said that the file was “sensitive” and that ensuring bioenergy created less environmental damage than the technologies it was replacing involved “getting a careful balance right”.

The case could appear to be isolated but it wasn’t, according to EU sources.

“A lot of environmental plans were blocked,” one senior EU official told EURACTIV. “Barroso’s general attitude was that environmental stuff doesn’t matter.”

“He wanted to be ‘big on the big things and small on the small things’ and the environment was one of the small things,” the official added.

Scorched timber regulation

EURACTIV understands that a communication was also planned for this autumn which would have established a coherent Europe-wide inspection regime for illegally-imported timber.

Contraband wood products are the fruits of deforestation, which is responsible for 17% of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions, 50% more than from ships, aviation and land transport combined.  

But European countries have great disparities in wealth and GDP, as well as differing legal standards and traditions for regulating the timber trade.

This is problematic as illegal logging is rampant – making up 15-30% of all global forestry production, according to a recent UNEP/Interpol report – and has a turnover valued at between $30-100 billion.  

Fines for law-breakers can range from €7,500 in Bulgaria to €5 million in the Czech Republic, and an unlimited sum in the UK.

Harmonised standards

A harmonised standard was seen as the best way to plug gaps in Europe’s timber market, but EU sources say that the Barroso team first delayed the proposal – citing forthcoming elections – and then instructed officials to drop the file anyway.

In its place, the EU executive released a scorecard last week showing that 12 member states had still not fully implemented the EU Timber regulation banning illegal timber imports, 16 months after it was enacted.

Spain, Poland, Hungary and Malta have not complied with any of the law’s three obligations: designating a competent authority, adopting penalties and checking on companies performances.

“We are pursuing two pilot procedures and may follow up with infringement procedures,” said Karl Falkenberg, the Commission’s director-general for the environment.

Another EU official said that there were “internal differences” over how the issue should be approached, which were being discussed.

But in the absence of a uniform European standard, environmentalists say that timber smugglers may simply direct their products to the EU market via states with the least risky and punitive routes.

Pro-industry bias?

The leaders of the EU executive are no strangers to claims of pro-industry bias.

Earlier this year, the Green MEP Claude Turmes complained to EURACTIV that “the manipulation from Barroso and Catherine Day around the 2030 [climate and energy] package is just gigantic. It is intended to please the British and destroy EU policy on renewables and energy efficiency.”

As rumours gathered that the EU president and Day were blocking an energy efficiency target for 2030 higher than 27%, Friends of the Earth reacted with a protest video.  

Reliable sources also laid the untimely death of a proposal to regulate shale gas firms in the 2030 climate and energy package at Barroso’s feet.

When EURACTIV asked one EU official how a separate proposal to scrap the Fuel Quality Directive ended up in the 2030 package, he replied: “I think the pressure came from the US and the fossil fuels industry.”

‘Ask Catherine

“You should go right to see Catherine Day and ask her,” he said.

Commission orthodoxy though maintains that EU leaders need to negotiate according to the realpolitik of the day and that Barroso and Day’s hands were tied by conservative member states.

Falkenberg affirmed that the contribution that timber legislation and improved inspections could have on climate change was “clear in the minds of all levels of responsibility in the Commission.”

“The extent to which this may be shared by the 28 Member States may be more mixed,” he added.

Karl Falkenberg, the European Commission's director-general for the environment, sent EURACTIV a statement, saying that "the last years have been very successful in environmental awareness and protection in Europe, including through major new or updated EU regulation. Water, Air or most recently Waste legislation are good examples of ambitious legislative proposals adopted by the Barroso Commission! Nature legislation too has been strengthened for example with the regulation on invasive alien species!"

Rising levels of cancers and fertility problems have attracted scientists’ attention to endocrine disrupting chemicals, with some calling for strict regulation of the substances, in line with the precautionary principle.

Others meanwhile, stress the worthiness of those chemicals in everyday products such as plastics and warn that the foundations of science risk being turned upside down if precautionary measures are taken.

>> Read our LinksDossier: Endocrine disruptors: Harmful or not?

September 2014: Stakeholder consultation on endocrine disruptors strategy due

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